Althusser and Film Theory


This is a good introduction to the importance of Althusser to film theory by Rosen 1986: 156ff.


What especially links film theory to the post-structuralism of the 1970s is the great impact of that sector of post-structuralism which claimed to be producing new elaborations of theorics of human subjectivity. Therefore [...] it will be useful to introduce some of the relevant aspects of what has been called the theory of the subject.

The term subject denotes a fundamental human mental activity of interacting with things in the world by opposing them to one's own consciousness, as in the philosophical (epistemological) distinction between subject and object. However, by the 1970s French post-structuralists, including such divergent thinkers as Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, and Jacques Lacan, had from varying but intertwining perspectives all proposed that the traditional philosophical conception of the subject is misleading in important respects. Against the strong Cartesian tradition in French intellectual history, they argued in different ways that the self-awareness of human subjectivity is founded on a central misrecognition by the subject—or self, or ego—that it is somehow central to the processes of knowing the world. In general, these post-structuralists at that time argued that the subject's knowledge of world and self is shaped by discourse. Ultimately this could be to say that human subjectivity finds itself through a discursive universe which produces and reproduces that subjectivity and, often enough, its constitutive illusions. /157/


To be aware of oneself as a distinct mental entity, a consciousness, is to have identity. Phenomenologically, of course, this is a constant, everyday experience which enables one to confront existence and undertake activities as a "continuous" human being; that is, I remain conscious that I am the "same" person today I was yesterday, which is a guarantee of my identity. Such self-awareness, however, can also be described with referencc to processes not reducible to the unique experience by an individual of his or her own consciousness. It is possible to argue that such consciousness is a product, or construct, rather than an irreducible a priori. Such an argument would rest on an account of how this mode of subjectivity is produced and how it functions.

If one attempts this kind of argument from the perspective of social theory, the claim would be that to take the position of a self-aware subject is to participate in a process valuable to social institutions and/or to a society. In that case one's identity is produced as a result of ongoing social processes. Such a perspective was advanced influentially during thc I960s and early I970s in Louis Althusser's reformulations of Marxist theories of ideology.[1]

For Althusser ideology is a requisite component of any society. It consists in a vast network of representational systems that provide the means with which individuals may think of their existence. But since it operates by delimiting as well as providing possible significations of existencc, that massive representational network Althusser calls ideology is restrictive of thought and experience. He argues that such restrictions are crucial components of social organization and order: To maintain themselves over time, societies require that their multitude of agents have a minimal commonality of "consciousness," which means that those possibilities and limitations on thought and experience must to a significant degree be produced as an integral part of any lasting societal organization. This perspective leads Althusser to suggest that the category of the subject is a necessary (if not sufficient) support for the workings of ideology.

Such a conception, if accepted, has clear theoretical and methodological consequences for any semiotics, since it envisions representational systems as intricately knotted with broad processes of social organization. But here we will concentrate on the category of the subject in such a framework. For Althusser, ideology exists in an uncountable number of signifying entities. From the viewpoint of "consciousness," it can be said that we are "surrounded" from birth by signifying discourses which necessarily provide the paths by which we understand and experience. But from another perspective it is these discourses /158/which construct individual social agents as human subjects. Insofar as any instance of signification presumes an addressee or "listener," it aims at something which is presumed to be able to understand—a someone. An individual is addressed in such discursive processes as a coherent consciousness, a subject.

The mechanisms by which discourses assume and thus appeal to a purportedly pre-existing subject—and thereby are in fact prior connditions for its production—Althusser sums up with the term interpellation. This term can name the act whereby a member of parliament questions a minister who is obligated to respond and assume responsibility for the actions of his or her government. Althusser metaphorically theorizes that all human individuals as social agents are constantly being interpellated. The discourses which interpellate them are not simply autonomous, but are amalgamated with social institutions, ranging from religion (one is called to account by an overarching authority) to legal practices (one is called to take responsibility as a legal subject for one's thoughts and actions) to everyday activities throughout a social formation.

If it still seems puzzling that Althusser would place such emphasis on ideology as representational processes and then focus on what can be called a "subject effect" as a social function, then we might elaborate a bit on the centrality of this effect to discursive practices. Every time an individual "uses" a signifying system, such as verbal language, the very form of that system includes "places" that attest to the existence of subjects of signification. In the fundamental, therefore privileged system of verbal language, examples include personal pronouns and verb tense—which always is relative to the present time of the speaker and thus assumes a subject of language in time. This subject is ultimately posited in discourse as the sender and/or comprehender of significations. In this context, it can be said that Althusser focuses attention on a conflation of levels: the sender and/or comprehender of significations, able to speak and understand, is conflated with a social subject mandated by social institutions, able to "choose," "responsible" for his or her acts, ultimately culpable for antisocial behavior. Since it is ideology, a kind of discursive environment, that provides the mediations for understanding actual existence, an individual's placement as a social subject is a placement as subject "in" discourse.[2]

On this view, then, the human subject is a function of a social formation which assumes and thereby continually constructs it in practices, in institutions, and therefore through discourse, without which there cannot be social practices and institutions, as a universal category of "lived experience." By constructing subjects in ideology—which is, ultimately, a framework for understanding existence beneficial to a given social order—the social formation works to maintain its own relative stability through time (both in the lifetime of an individual's experience and across the time of successive generations). The experience of subjectivity is intricately interlocked with the reproduction by a social formation of itself as a "natural" state of things. In classical accounts, of course, the production of what exists as "natural" is the operation of ideology. /159/

Such a perspective has direct implications for film theory. If ideology consists in a universe of discursive representationality, then insofar as cinema works as representation and/or as a component of discursive systems of representation, filmic signifying systems can and should be investigated as ideology. If discursive effects are inseparable from interpellating individuals as subjects, then even film theory conceptualizing cinema as ideology should inquire about the mechanisms through which an individual film spectator "recognizes" himself or herself as subject in the film viewing process. In fact, this became a question consistently raised in film analysis during the I970s, though not always from the explicit premise of social interpellation. Given the importance of the politicized wing of semiotic investigators of cinema, one would expect the fundamental repetitions identified in investigations stemming from the structuralist tendency to be related to questions of cinema as ideology: what concepts, myths, ideas, etc. are being thus recirculated? But such researches were further tied to a strong interest in what came to be called the study of "the position of the subject" or "subject-positioning" in cinema: how do dominant cinematic strategies strive to position the spectators as subjects, and what are the possibilities for contesting this positioning? This line of inquiry proved to be one of the strongest and most fertile in recent film theory.

However, if one examines a film for the mechanisms by which it offers a position or positions for the spectator to recognize himself or herself as subject, one will encounter a certain lack in the theory of ideology. A theory of ideology is not a specific account of human subjectivity as such, but an account of the production, circulation, and constraints of what is taken as knowledge and/or positions proper to knowledge in a given social formation. Thus, if one agrees with Althusser that the category of thc subject is of special importance for ideological formations, there is a theoretical need for exploring the attraction of "subjecthood." What profit is there for an individual human being in assuming the positionality defined by that category? The very notions of interpellation and spectator-positioning seem to assume individuals who already desire to recognize themselves as subjects. Hence, an understanding of that desire is necessary even to pose those issues in the analysis of films.

Given the linkage of ideology and this desire with discursivity, the attraction, the appeal, of signifying processes requires a more specific theorization. This amounts to asking for an elaborate and rigorous account of relationships among text, meaning, pleasure, and spectatorial position. What are the processes by which specific discursive patterns appeal to an individual as subject? Social theory alone could not answer this question. But the ways one responds to this question will determine how one analyzes film texts and theorizes cinema.

In cinema semiotics of the 1970S, this issue was most often met by treating signification in terms provided by particular kinds of psychoanalytic theory. Now, if one attributes any validity to the psychoanalytic enterprise, this move will not seem too surprising. It is possible to view even classical psychoanalysis /160/ precisely as an account of the individual's desire for identity, for secure subjective positionality, against forces which constantly threaten it. Freud's "discovery" of the unconscious is inseparable from his account of human identity as being founded on a repression which is a necessary condition for forming a sense of self.

For Freudians, primary experiences of identity are constructed against a radical anxiety, summarized as castration anxiety. Processes of desire, sexuality, and fantasy are intertwined with consciousness of self, which is produced to counter that founding anxiety and is always in dialectic with it. As a result, the normal experience of identity occurs only on condition that its basic processes are hidden from the "I" thus constructed. This is an essential Freudian point: there is always a fundamental misrecognition involved in the individual's desire to find—or recognize—his or her self as stable and secure.

The thesis that the unconscious is the basis for the existence of self-consciousness ("ego") can therefore serve as an explanation of the generalized desire of individual humans to seek secure subjective positions. Classical psychoanalytical conceptions could therefore be of great importance to the theorization of how films appeal to human subjects. In addition, however, the psychoanalytic theory utilized in recent cinema semiotics has often been inflected by the work of Jacques Lacan. Much of the conceptual apparatus for the most influential work on subject positioning in cinema has been provided by his formulations.



[1] See esp. "Marxism and Humanism," in Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Pantheon Books, 1969); and, on the subject and the thesis of interpellation (discussed below), "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation)," in Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971).

[2] This link between signifying form and social institutions via the concept of the subject is not made as explicitly by Althusser himself. However, insofar as the category of the subject has been of interest in film theory from a sociocultural perspective, a jump such as this seems necessary.

On the provisions made in structures of verbal language for subject effects, one constant reference has been the work of Emile Benveniste. Sec his articles such as "Relationships of Person in the Verb," "The Correlations of Tense in the French Verb," "The Nature of Pronouns," and ''Subjectivity in Language" all included in his collection Problems in General Linguistics, trans. Mary Elizabeth Meek (Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press, 1971). For example, see p.224: "It is in and through language that man [sic] constitutes himself as a subject. . ."